Opening Remarks by Dr. Babatunde Ahonsi at China Nordic Smart City Forum - 17 September 2020

Dear colleagues from the Ministry of Science and Technology,

China Association for Science and Technology,

People’s Government of Beijing Municipality,

Administrative Committee of Zhongguancun Science Park,

China Technology Exchange and Sino-Scandinavian Innovation & Entrepreneurship Centre,


My fellow colleagues from the international community in China,

Ladies and Gentlemen,


Good Morning!


Let me begin by thanking the organizers for convening this important discussion here at the 2020 Zhongguancun Forum, as well as the Sino-Scandinavian Innovation & Entrepreneurship Centre for inviting me to speak on behalf of the UN development system in China.


The reason I am here today is because of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. As many of you may know, five years ago, the world’s nations unanimously adopted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a blueprint for achieving a shared sustainable future for all, addressing major global challenges that we face, including poverty, inequality, and climate change in order to achieve a healthy environment, prosperity, peace and justice for all.

At the center of the 2030 Agenda is a three-pillared concept of sustainability: economic, environmental and social. These three dimensions of sustainability are not separate silos, but interwoven and mutually reinforcing concepts of sustainability that cannot be achieved individually.


The 2030 Agenda is extremely ambitious, by design. That being said, the Secretary General’s 2019 SDG Progress Report pointed out that notwithstanding the progress to date, if current trends continue, humanity will not achieve the SDGs. The situation has been further complicated since the outbreak of COVID-19, the profound socio-economic and development challenges that have resulted from the pandemic presenting us with a crisis well beyond the realm of health.


Over the span of a few short months, COVID-19 has spread to every corner of the world, infecting more than 28 million people and claiming more than 900,000 lives across 216 countries, areas and territories. The pandemic is exposing and exacerbating pre-existing vulnerabilities and inequalities within and among countries. It has placed pressure on the weakest points in our health systems, curtailed access to finance, threatens to cause heightened food insecurity, and continues to disrupt international trade. It has posed tremendous risks to human health and safety as well as to the world economy, having proved itself a grave challenge to the global public health governance system and to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 


In response, the UN Secretary-General has launched the UN Comprehensive Response to COVID-19 to save lives, protect societies, and recover better. The Response sets out what we can and must do to: (1) deliver a global response that leaves no-one behind; (2) reduce our vulnerability to future pandemics; (3) build resilience to future shocks – above all climate change, and (4) overcome the severe and systemic inequalities exposed by the pandemic. The Response promotes three pillars of operation namely, delivery of a large-scale, coordinated and comprehensive health response; adoption of policies that address the devastating socioeconomic, humanitarian and human rights aspects of the crisis; and a recovery process that builds back better.

The whole idea of building back better brings us to the topic of today’s forum: smart cities. There is a dedicated SDG for this, namely, SDG 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities.


The 2019 SDG Report pointed out that cities and metropolitan areas are powerhouses of economic growth – contributing to around 60 per cent of global GDP. However, they also account for close to 70 per cent of global carbon emissions and over 60 per cent of resource use. Rapid urbanization is resulting in inadequate and overburdened infrastructure and services, worsening air pollution and unplanned urban sprawl. Rapid urbanization and population growth are outpacing the construction of adequate and affordable housing. The proportion of the urban population living in slums worldwide grew to 23.5% in 2018, in comparison to 23% in 2014. The absolute number of people living in slums or informal settlements grew to over 1 billion. Access to public transport is increasing, but stronger efforts are needed to ensure that sustainable transport is available to all, particularly to vulnerable populations such as women, children, seniors and persons with disabilities. The challenge of dealing with municipal waste is mounting, and investment in waste management infrastructure is urgently needed to improve the handling of solid waste across much of the world. In too many cities, air pollution has become an unavoidable health hazard with nine out of ten urban residents in 2016 breathing polluted air. Open public spaces make cities more inclusive, but these spaces are not necessarily easily accessible for many residents.


These are alarming facts and figures. We live in an increasingly urbanized world. Since 2007, more than half the world’s population has been living in cities, and that share is projected to rise to 60 per cent by 2030. We cannot allow the above-mentioned challenges and problems to continue if we are to achieve the SDGs. COVID-19 presents an unprecedented crisis, but also an opportunitiy to take stock of what actions will be required to build a better future, requiring extraordinary global solidarity to urgently respond. Without coordinated actions and solidarity, we will not be able to overcome the pandemic and the hurdles and challenges in the way of achieving the SDGs.


 In the UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the General Assembly and Security Council on the 2020 Report on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace, it was clearly pointed out that COVID-19 ‘has reinforced the need to keep our eyes focused on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development - humanity’s ultimate prevention tool’ and he affirmed his conviction that ‘multidimensional, integrated and whole-of-society responses are vital to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century and leave no one behind.’


Leveraging new technologies and innovation will be central to achieving sustainable development. We have witnessed how technology has reshaped our world, and can say with certainty that future advances will have even more impact. We can expect to see exponential innovation built on technologies such as 3D printing, Artificial Intelligence, new mobile technology, and quantum computing. Digital technology has changed the way we learn, work and socialize. But how will societies evolve in response?  Where are these new technologies leading us?  How can we make sure that technology is an enabler for inclusion and sustainability rather than exacerbating the existing social, economic and environmental disparities we face? We need to understand and invest in tech that improve lives, the environment and society, technology that contributes to an inclusive and more equal future society. It is time to harness technology and innovations for good, to nurture and invest in purpose-driven technologies, and to foster economic ecosystems that are integrated with the environment, social causes and consider the fate of future generations.


That is why the UN is present here at today’s forum. The SDGs, including SDG 11 on Sustainable Cities and Communities require an unprecedented level of partnership between countries as well as between the public and private sectors. Many of the challenges we face associated with rapid urbanization and climate change are global and will need global solutions. We are happy to learn that to respond to the challenges related to rapid urbanization, 150 countries have developed national urban plans, with almost half of them already in the implementation phase. Ensuring that those plans are well executed will help cities grow in a more sustainable and inclusive manner. In the meantime, business also has a very important role to play in the process.

It is not enough for businesses to act as good corporate citizens; we need enterprises to transform their business models and to strive for creating positive impacts at a much bigger scale.


The focus of the UN in China today is to support China’s effort to implement the 2030 Agenda and achieve the SDGs. Our focus is to make sure that “no one is left behind” as China walks the last mile in its poverty alleviation efforts and shifts focus towards a high-quality development. We are also working with China on its increasing international development cooperation with other countries. Through these global partnerships, China has an opportunity to contribute to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda not only within its borders, but also globally.


Today we are taking a step forward: sharing experiences and practices to be able to build back better, and better prepare ourselves for the future. This means we must think beyond the current COVID-19 pandemic and prepare ourselves for potential future pandemics and crises which will require collaborative global responses. We should develop a far-sighted view, and identify and agree on next steps to make full use of the Decade of Action and Delivery of the SDGs that remains between now and 2030. Actors from government officials, entrepreneurs, technology gurus and academics (many of who are represented here today) have the power and resources to drive and shape the future of our society. We call on each and every one of you to use your power; use your wisdom, skills, and resources to innovate, and invest in purpose-driven technologies and make cities and human settlements safer, more inclusive, more resilient and more sustainable for all.


Together, in this time of immense change, lets join hands in sharing resources and experiences, to help countries all over the world to overcome this unprecedented crisis confronting humankind and bring the world back on track towards achieving the SDGs.


Thank you. 

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